The MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) have rattled, shocked, appalled, and stunned audiences since the day they launched in 1984. In 2009, Taylor Swift and Kanye West delved into their years-long feud. In 2013, Miley Cyrus opened and re-popularized the foam finger, and in 2022, Taylor Swift announced her tenth studio album, Midnights.
The 40th VMAs kick off on Tuesday, Sept. 12 on MTV at 8 p.m. EST on MTV. To commemorate 40 years of the notable show, here are 15 of the greatest VMA moments.
1. Madonna Marries The Stage (1984)
MTV's first Video Music Awards Ceremony presented Madonna atop a white wedding cake, dressed in a revealing silk wedding dress with a waistband that read “BOY TOY” for a memorable performance of “Like a Virgin.” Madonna's heel accidentally came off while she sat on the 17-foot cake, so the pop star kicked off her other shoe before descending the stage set. As she got to the ground, she rolled around, looking for her shoes in an impromptu, suggestive dance that became one of entertainment history's most talked about performances.
2. Krist Novoselic's Bass Bounces Back (1992)
Nirvana's bass player, Krist Novoselic, submitted to the euphoria of playing a live performance of “Lithium” for thousands, so he grabbed his strap off his back and tossed his bass into the open air. He miscalculated the speed of the bass, and the instrument clocked him in the face, knocking him over upon impact.
3. Fiona Apple Disses The World (1997)
When musical legend Fiona Apple won the Best New Artist award at the 1997 VMAs, she grumbled as she launched into an unprepared, unscripted speech about modern-day hypocrisy and stardom. She quoted Maya Angelou to emphasize that the world is trash and the fame pyramid is not society's ideal model. “You shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool, and what we're wearing, and what we're saying, and everything. Go with yourself.”
4. Tim Commerford Rock Climbs (2000)
Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine battled in 2000 at the MTV Video Music Awards. Both bands earned nominations for Best Rock Video, and when Limp Bizkit won, Rage Against the Machine's bassist, Tim Commerford, ran on stage and climbed the backdrop, hoping to knock it over.
“This guy is rock ‘n roll. He should be getting the award,” a nervous Fred Durst spoke to the audience. An undercover cop and venue security pulled Commerford out of the prop and arrested him on disorderly conduct.
5. Britney Spears' Bodysuit (2000)
Britney marched down a spiral staircase clad in a sparkly jumpsuit and a matching fedora for her monumental millennium performance of “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” and “Oops!… I Did It Again.” For a seamless song switch, Britney ripped her suit off to showcase a skin-colored outfit, which, in 2000, shook the crowd. Those who watched the clip live still remember their reaction to Britney's mashup.
6. Britney Spears Snuggles With a Snake (2001)
Britney Spears draping a yellow python over her neck while performing her iconic number “I'm a Slave 4 U” was not on anybody's “Radar” during the 2001 VMAs. Spears emerged from a cage in the middle of her jungle-themed stage set and danced toward a backup dancer who wrapped the slithering creature around her. The performance stupefied the audience and continues to spark conversations today.
7. Michael Jackson's Millennium Award (2002)
Michael Jackson's 44th birthday occurred on the same day as the 2002 VMAs. The showrunners wanted to show gratitude toward Jackson and celebrate his birthday. However, the present they gifted him resembled a Moonman award. Also, when Britney Spears introduced this segment, she called Jackson the “artist of the millennium,” making Jackson think he won a new, prestigious award.
Though he did not win a legitimate award, the audience thanked his speech with uproarious applause and a standing ovation, gifting him a fabulous 44th birthday present.
8. Britney Spears, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera Kiss (2003)
What a time 2003 was. Twenty years ago, the award ceremony commenced with Madonna's iconic mash-up of “Like a Virgin” and “Hollywood.” In the middle of “Hollywood,” Madonna rose from the ground and shared an open-mouthed kiss with Britney Spears, then turned her cheek for a smooch with Aguilera. The camera people knew what they were doing when they panned to Britney's ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake after she kissed Madonna.
Following the kiss, Missy Elliot sprung from a stage prop and launched into a segment of her song “Work It.” Two decades later, the moment still sparks riveting conversations and news articles.
9. Lady Gaga Bleeding Out (2009)
Lady Gaga brought the story of “Paparazzi” to life with her artistic 2009 vision of the song. She began the commentary on fame's destruction of self, lying before a fallen chandelier. Gaga traipses through the motions, suggesting fame injures her physically and mentally, as she gains a crutch and limps during the middle of the song.
The song's final chorus includes Gaga bleeding through her pristine white outfit, and a wire (attached to her hand) draws her off the ground toward the ceiling and twirls her bloodied body around.
10. Lil Mama Has an Empire State of Mind (2009)
The big lights truly inspired Lil Mama during Jay-Z's and Alicia Keys's performance of their hit single “Empire State of Mind.” The “Lip Gloss” rapper pulled away from Beyonce's clutches to jump on stage with the two talented musicians to perform backup dancing. Lil Mama nodded at Jay-Z as he raised his eyebrow, wondering why she hopped on stage. Keys sang her reverberating chorus, paying no mind to the new member.
The duo (trio) finished the song, and Lil Mama assumed an arms-crossed pose, matching Jay-Z and Keys. Realizing she stood a foot from her bandmates, Lil Mama inched closer, concluding the comics.
11. Kanye vs. Taylor (2009)
Before Kanye had his crowds chanting “F Taylor Swift,” he stole her Moonman for best music video and her microphone, placing the spotlight on him. West voiced into the mic, “I'mma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best music videos of all time for Single Ladies.” The camera panned to Beyonce's nervous smile and flashed back to Kanye returning Taylor's award and mic to the country-pop singer and walking off stage.
Swift, Taylor Lautner, and the rest of the artists on stage looked around at the packed venue with confused faces.
12. Lady Gaga Meat Dress (2010)
Lady Gaga never shied away from making statements. Her biggest statement came from a dress composed of raw beef. Gaga proudly showed up to the VMAs covered head to toe in raw meat. Her dress disgusted PETA and other animal rights groups, while it amazed TIME, fashion commenters, and critics.
Gaga donned the meat as a response to the U.S. military's “Don't ask, don't tell” policy. A rule that states LGBTQ+ military didn't need to make their orientation known, but if they did, they'd receive punishment. The military repealed the law a year later.
13. Miley and Robin Thicke Blurred Lines (2013)
Although Miley twerking on Robin Thicke became a meme, a moment, and a cultural touchstone, it doubled as a defining statement in Miley's career. From that turning point, Cyrus began to speak her mind without letting the media sway her opinion or talk over her.
After the performance rattled the entertainment industry and the public, Miley's name hasn't left anyone's mouth. Her reputation shifted from a perfect childhood star to a woman who needs help, a child star who lost her innocence to fame, and a person who “Can't Be Tamed.”
14. Miley What's Good (2015)
During Miley's glitter-fueled hosting of the 2015 VMAs, Nicki Minaj's song “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video. After Minaj thanked her pastor, she turned her attention toward Miley, using a few choice words that ended on one of the most profound lines in pop culture history. “Miley, what's good?”
Rebel Wilson's—who awarded Minaj the Moonman, dressed as a cop, nonetheless— mouth fell open at the shade. Still, Miley, unphased, maintained a professional attitude toward the beef, stating interviewers manipulate and pit successful women against each other. The camera panned back to an aggravated Minaj, inaudibly muttering at Miley.
15. Miley Cyrus Hosts (2015)
Television thrives off of controversy and drama; it's a huge reason reality TV has the audience it does today. Two years after Miley twerked on Robin Thicke with a foam finger, MTV invited her back to host the award ceremony. The television network trusted her “tainted” former child star reputation would attract viewers and “uncontrollable” behavior to amp up viewers and ratings.
Cyrus brought a lot of glitter: a Justin Bieber diss, a Kanye West for president endorsement, extravagant outfits, and an album release announcement for her free studio album Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz.